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The digital currency (r)evolution

Published in Automated Trader Magazine Issue 35 Winter 2015

If bitcoin is the BitTorrent of cryptocurrencies, what's going to be the Spotify?

It was clear that bitcoin was going to become a very big deal when a unit of the digital currency hit parity with an ounce of gold in USD. A little over one year later, ATMs, derivatives and exchanges are springing up and everybody seems to be paying attention.

So why did news outlet Quartz call it "the worst investment" of the year? Partly to be provocative, but also because the price collapsed by more than half - from some $770 in Jan 2014 to just under $320 at the end of the year using CoinDesk's BPI (Bitcoin Price Index). At its peak, bitcoin was trading at $1,138 in November 2013 on the Mt. Gox exchange.

There might be shenanigans behind these swings. Specialist media said two computer algorithms - Willy and Markus - were artificially inflating the price of bitcoin at the venue.

That would be the same Mt. Gox exchange that collapsed amid claims that hundreds of thousands of bitcoins were lost to hackers. Early this year, European exchange Bitstamp was hacked resulting in the theft of $5 million (19,000 units).

And don't forget about bitcoin being the choice currency to buy drugs. US authorities seized some 50,000 bitcoins (approx. $20 million at the time) from the online black market Silk Road, ultimately auctioning them.

The point is it's a bit of a rocky start for a system designed to shift trust from centralised authorities to technology.

Still, that auction attracted a wide variety of interest - from individuals to tier one banks.

There are a number of reasons for banks to be paying attention but probably the most obvious one is the disruptive potential, exemplified by a recent transaction of $147 million that cost nothing. It's why people say that if gold is the ultimate store of value then bitcoin is the ultimate medium of exchange.

Bitcoin isn't the only game in town though and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight to the proliferation of new coins - litecoin, dogecoin, altcoin, and so on. The whole thing starts to look a bit frothy when, on his YouTube channel, Russell Brand is plugging financial commentator Max Keiser's eponymous coin.

Are we witnessing a revolution? Possibly. Though it could be the actual underlying block chain technology that will overthrow the old guard rather than any tradable bits derived from it. In fact, the way bitcoin has been adopted might be the least imaginative uptake of creator Satoshi Nakomoto's brilliant, elegant, eloquent nine-page research paper.

Peek Ahead highly recommends the read. At the great risk of oversimplifying, traditional structures can be overthrown in favour of consensus nodes that build and verify a global ledger conferring digital ownership. Those familiar with the Byzantine generals' problem will know there's some mental gymnastics involved.

New players continue to emerge in this space too - Ripple Labs being one of the most exciting for proposing the next generation of decentralised networks.

For now, bitcoin is likely to remain the most popular branding for what is a complex multi-dimensional community. And of course there is a profit motive. One trader dealing bitcoins for a couple of years now, including derivative transactions, told Peek Ahead: "Well, I have more money this year than last year, so yeah, I'll keep doing it".